Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sling and a Prayer

LostThere's a lot to love about Lost in Shangri-La, Mitchell Zuckoff's epic telling of the World War II sightseeing flight that went down in the middle of New Guinea. Only three of the twenty-four Army personnel survived the plane crash: a strapping lieutenant, a reticent tech sergeant and a beautiful young corporal from The Women's Army Corps. Soon the wounded trio find themselves surrounded by stone-age tribesmen as they await rescue from the impenetrable jungle. For three hundred some pages, the survivors wrangle with the natives as military planners hatch a harebrained scheme to return them to civilization. Cross-cultural assumptions, mutual hubris and a sexy heroine: this forgotten yet true episode of the Greatest Generation has it all. But for my money, the bestseller peaks only when a photog drops onto the scene. Literally.

Alexander Cann: Early Gonzo
Alexander Cann was a B-movie actor, a failed jewel thief and an accredited war correspondent with the Australian and the Americans Armies. When he heard about the American fliers trapped in the valley known as 'Shangri-La', he did what any rogue journalist would do in the face of a sensational story. He dove right in. Imagine the survivors (and their rescuers') shock when a supply plane passed over the valley and spat out a flaccid figure under an open parachute. The man under the canopy looked to be unconscious. As he floated towards the jungle floor, his soon-to-be hosts yelled instructions to soften his landing. Alex Cann never responded. Instead he landed spread-eagle in the tall grass soem distance away. Those already on the ground rushed to the spot, where the first person to reach Cann made a not so startling discovery.

"Captain...this man is drunk!"

When he sobered up, the filmmaker admitted drinking a fifth of gin before embarking on his first parachute jump. When asked why he would get drunk before leaping out of an airplane, Alexander Cann replied, "I didn't want to hesitate." Of course, hesitation was never his strong suit. Cann stayed with the survivors and the tribe for eleven days, filming odd interaction between the civilized and the primitive before capping off the 5,000 feet of 16 mm film with footage of a most unlikely rescue. Gripping, stilted and dripping with then modern sensibilities, Rescue from Shangri-La brought this collision of cultures to a wider audience before the earth-shattering news of Hiroshima's fate pushed this novelty into the dustbin of history. Zuckoff's engaging new book corrects that oversight, but decades earlier a certain soused cameraman jumped all over the story of a lifetime and, like everything else he tackled in his legendary career, had a damn good time doing it.

That's living victoriously.


Anonymous said...

Alexander Cann filmed the first glider "snatch" that lifted survivors of the "Gremlin Special" crash in New Guinea out of the valley known as "Shangri-la." Does anyone know anything about this 11-minute quasi-documentary video?

Amanda said...

ONLY a fifth of gin? My my my, I know of newsreelers who drank more than that on the job...

And the stilted footage looks to be shot on an eyemo...they only run for about 15-30 seconds on a single wind unless you crank them by hand (which is a royal PITA)

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